Art Conservator Q&A with Julie Lauffenburger

Julie Lauffenburger, Director of Conservation and Technical Research shares her passion for conservation, curating the Gold in the Ancient Americas exhibition and her journey to the Walters Art Museum.

Why are you so passionate about preserving art?

I am a bit of a history nerd. Just ask my children—always a historic site wrapped into a family vacation! Preserving art to me is about preserving the legacy of human creativity: what makes us human and what is universal about all of us wherever we live. I have always been fascinated by material culture and have always wanted to travel and see the world; preserving art ensures that material culture from around the world will be there for future generations to discover. It makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger.

How did your career bring you to your position at the Walters?

During my training I worked in museums in Philadelphia and Washington, but out of graduate school I had a decision to make – should I accept an internship offer at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Harvard Art Museums in Boston, or the Walters? And if you are in the conservation field, that is a pretty tricky choice. I chose the Walters. This was because of its truly incredible collection and the reputation of the conservators here and the commitment to training. I was not disappointed.

What is one aspect about your job that most people might not know or expect?

If people have heard of conservation or art restoration, it is probably in the context of something major like the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel. In part, that is exactly what we do: unearth the work of artists’ hands that have been masked by centuries of dirt and soot. What people may not know is that there is a bit of science involved. Just last Friday, I traveled with our conservation scientist to have two important bronzes from Cambodia examined with computed tomography (CT scanning) to see inside the object to help determine how it was made. Now we have some amazing images that hope to share with our museum visitors. Oh, and also, like every job…there is a lot of paperwork – but it’s important. We document everything we do.

Julie LauffenburgerWhat were some of the challenges you faced serving as conservator and curator for the Gold in the Ancient Americas exhibition?

As curator for the exhibition, I was responsible for creating a narrative using objects to illustrate what I thought was important to tell about gold in the ancient Americas. As conservators, often our job is to assess whether an object is stable for exhibition and, if not, to let the curator know. So in this case, my conservator self would have to keep my curator self in check! Not always easy. This experience also gave me a healthy dose of respect for what the curators here make look so easy and seamless.

The Walters Art Museum has the third oldest conservation lab in the United States. How does it feel to be working in that lab?

Simply said, it is a privilege. What it says to me is that the museum administration has always had the long-term preservation of the collection at the forefront of its mission. This has not changed over time. We are somewhat unique in that we are the department of conservation and technical research, which from the earliest years meant that our lab was involved in solving some of the greatest issues in the preservation of antiquities, including the decay of polychromed wooden sculpture and the corrosion of archaeological bronzes. As the current interim director of the department, I also feel a great sense of responsibility to maintain the excellent level of research and treatment that this lab has produced over its history.

How have the techniques for art conservation changed over the years?

There have been incredible leaps in terms of methods of analysis of art; to us this means less and less invasive treatments and the ability to learn more about an object without even taking a sample. We as a profession are also getting better at borrowing from other professions, for example, the food industry: we borrow the technology and apply it to our needs. What hasn’t changed is the importance of the skill and training of each individual conservator. Hands-on training is essential, and the informed decision making required by each conservator is still the most valued skill.

Does analyzing art change the nature of its composition?

It can depend on the method of the analysis, but generally no. In fact, this is a question we ask as we approach any treatment and analyses: Will what I am doing today change the nature of the object, or the interpretation of the object, in years to come? One of our guiding principles is that everything we do to an object should be reversible.

Julie Lauffenburger has been a staff member since 1991. She graduated with a Master of Arts and Certificate in Conservation from the State University College at Buffalo in 1989 and received a bachelor’s in Art History from Cornell University in 1985. See Julie’s exhibition, Gold in the Ancient Americas, before it closes on October 11, 2015.